Of the many talents the late Leonard Cohen possessed, he was arguably peerless in blending religion and eroticism. There is his channeling of desperate passion through the image of the saint in “Joan of Arc”—“Then fire make your body cold / I’m going to give you mind to hold.” Although, arguably the most well-loved instance is his reimagining of the David and Bathsheba story in “Hallelujah.” Cohen, like the poets that proceeded him, understood the bleed between religious fervor and carnal passion. Any emotion that someone can feel in one column or another is hardly far removed from the other. Add in a winking sense of humor, and Cohen’s oeuvre is one of sexiness paired with the language and imagery of the devout. It is the same comingling that defines Patricia Ortega’s radiant new film Mamacruz (2023) where a pious grandmother rediscovers her sexual appetite.
Cruz “MamaCruz” (Kiti Mànver) is a passionate member of the local church community which she supports by stitching and fixing anything the congregation may need. At home, she lives with her husband Eduardo (Pepe Quero), and her young granddaughter Viky (Inéz Benítez Viñuela). Viky’s mother, Carlota (Silvia Acosta), is a dancer away in the midst of a high-stakes audition. Their only point of connection is a tablet that Viky helps MamaCruz video chat on. It is on this tablet, late one night, that MamaCruz accidentally clicks a pop-up that sends her to a pornographic clip. At first, she is mortified, the content and the urges it inspires are against the reverent life around her. Yet, she cannot deny the excitement it sparks in her, and she joins a group of middle-aged women exploring their sensuality. What unfurls is one woman’s journey to reconnect with her discarded sexual appetite.
Writing about her inspiration to make Mamacruz, Ortega references a boudoir photo she found of her mother, who she calls “a Catholic and conventional woman.” The disconnect between the mother she knew and the one suggested in the photo set Ortega off to write a story that explored that space. Even without knowing that background, it is impossible not to feel the tenderness in the script that Ortega wrote with José Ortuño, an emotion that suggests a profoundly personal consideration. There are many wonderful supporting characters in Mamacruz, especially when it comes to the group members MamaCruz meets, but Ortega and Ortuño write it as a laser-focused character study. MamaCruz navigates her personal crisis alongside working through her resentments about Carlota being far away and the general conservatism of her community. It is a perceptive examination of a woman we rarely get to see.
Directorially, Ortega locates an aesthetic palette that embraces the journey MamaCruz undertakes. There is hardly a frame in the film that does not include MamaCruz, and so Ortega favors a steady diet of close-ups and medium shots that keep us locked in on every wrinkle in MamaCruz’s day. In tandem with DP Fran Fernández Pardo, Ortega sculpts a visual language that warms and relaxes in parallel with MamaCruz. Harsher light softens and cooler colors heat up as she accepts the excitement she has unlocked. A key part of this is the masterful way that Ortega approaches framing and filming MamaCruz’s body. In the early stages, MamaCruz wears a girdle and spends little time considering her physical being as anything other than a hindrance. As she learns to embrace and love her form, Ortega’s camera lingers on its every part. Ortega skillfully amplifies MamaCruz’s internal journey this way.
At the center of all this is Mànver’s stunning performance. As a character, MamaCruz is defined by her restraint. Mànver captures this in a rigidness and clipped line delivery. Here is a woman who has built her self-image around the need to be proper and respectable. Mànver projects the anxiety she feels in every mounting perceived transgression through flitting glances, quick breaths, and crouched posture. As MamaCruz’s imagination and self-love blossom, Mànver translates it into an opened physicality. She moves without tempering, allowing her body to guide her from moment to moment. Her guarded thoughts and emotions come through, stunningly in one scene where she opens up to Carlota and dispels years of festered bad blood. Everything Mànver does is a case study in delicate acting. There is not a single beat in this film that she under or overplays. It is, simply, an exquisite piece of acting.
Mamacruz joins a growing group of films, such as last year’s exceptional Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) that make space for female characters later in life to center their sexuality. Mamacruz is among the best of them, and an announcement of Ortega as a talent to watch.
Mamacruz had its World Premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.
Director: Patricia Ortega
Writers: Patricia Ortega, Jose Ortuño
A Sensual Character Study Destined To Rank Among The Year's Best
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.